Managing Director of Technology at Health2047 with a comprehensive understanding of the digital transformation of health care IT.

The role of the CIO is on the brink of a big change.

When Synnott and Gruber conceptualized the chief information officer (CIO) in the 1980s, they envisioned a multivector leader, equal to the CEO and CFO. This new breed of executive would craft savvy strategies and achieve “business objectives through the innovative use of technology.” Over the years, this shiny vision lost much of its luster. CIOs are now often pigeonholed as operations marshals who manage IT support, run projects and obsess over security threats.

They’re tired of it.

Using the healthcare sector as a barometer, it is clear that those traditionally tagged with IT management and implementation are stepping out of the tedious “necessary expenditure” column — and reclaiming a much more strategic position.

Altered State

Over the past couple of years, healthcare CIOs and CISOs have been forced to quickly grapple with pandemic turmoil amid massive paradigm shifts. There’s no way to understate the scope of these business challenges as they catapulted the role wildly between the tactical realm of “how to fix the laptops for remote work” and the leadership realm of “how to drive the business transformation” — virtually overnight.

For example, according to McKinsey, “Covid-19 caused a massive acceleration in the use of telehealth” in 2020. By May of last year, telehealth adoption skyrocketed to 46% of consumers reporting use (up from just 11% in 2019.) Providers rapidly scaled offerings and were seeing “50 to 175 times the number of patients via telehealth than they did before.”

On top of all that, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services cybersecurity retrospective reported 239.4 million cyberattacks attempted in 2020 with an average of 816 attempted attacks per healthcare endpoint representing a 9,851% increase from 2019.

At the recent HIMSS21 Global Health Conference & Exhibition, National Coordinator for Health IT Micky Tripathi noted, “The pandemic, though tragic and frustrating and still very much with us, has also done us the service of pressure testing our IT infrastructure in ways unimaginable just 18 months ago.”

Healthcare CIOs have been laboring at the center of this maelstrom, and they’re emerging from that pressure testing with a new vision for the future.

Automate And Aspire

Much of the work required to keep healthcare IT functioning through the pandemic crisis happens to enable new operating models moving forward. Countless healthcare CIOs quickly leaned into cloud power, upgraded data flow mechanisms and built productive partnerships with managed services providers to enable rapid scaling and meet unpredictable demands. That was an enormous feat in a sector that’s traditionally technology reticent to change (to wit, faxes are still commonplace in the healthcare world).

Consider the case of one medical center’s success with “never-used-before technologies” that were brought online through speedy teamwork: “We built out full-scale telemedicine technologies and workflows literally over a weekend. Our teams discussed rolling out telehealth on a Thursday morning, looked at various technologies that Thursday afternoon, discussed the technologies with clinical, financial and operational leaders late Thursday afternoon, engaged a vendor the next day, and went live on Monday morning. … This kind of innovation is typically a nine-month project.” In 2020, it became a weekend process.

Those fast-and-furious efforts necessarily entailed utilizing a lot of automation — handling tons of IT “dirty work,” such as consolidating and integrating data from a host of sources in a host of formats (JSON, XML, HL7v2, FHIR, CCDA, etc.), and embedding controls in code. This regearing of IT systems to embrace automation enables use of a plethora of nifty artificial intelligence/machine learning (AI/ML) solutions structured to automatically manage once-costly computational infrastructure, compliance, security and administrative duties. And that changes the game.

As a result of the events of 2020, according to BDO’s 2021 Healthcare Digital Transformation Survey of U.S. healthcare executives, 60% of healthcare organizations are adding new digital projects, 42% are accelerating some or all their existing digital transformation plans, 78% are currently deploying cloud computing, 38% are already deploying AI/ML, 61% are planning to deploy AI/ML and 64% are planning to adopt robotic process automation (RPA) for predictable repetitive tasks and expanded data analytics capabilities.

The push is now on to “AI everything” in the back office and begin mapping out how those capabilities can free resources and enable new avenues for core business development. CIOs are no longer just reacting and struggling to meet baseline requirements. They’re now focused on products, not projects, and formulating 10-year plans for what else they can revolutionize, including elevating digital talent and fluency in their organizations.

Back To The Future

The HIMSS21 conference was a great bellwether for gauging rapid digitalization in response to a crisis and what it means for the healthcare industry. It wasn’t all smooth sailing, but there’s revelation in how quickly and effectively many organizations were able to modernize after years of foot dragging on technological adaptation. It’s as if the only thing holding them back was a mindset that innovation must be costly, controversial and complicated — CIOs driven by pandemic necessities cleared that illusion.

This awakening is also true of CIOs in other industries as they’ve had to accommodate massive shifts to remote work or supply chain disruption and other operational uncertainties over the past two years. As Google CISO Phil Venables recently wrote: “Every mission is about taking some amount of risk to achieve an objective. It is particularly dangerous to focus on exhaustively minimizing some risks while creating the risk of standing still and doing nothing so an organization’s agility or growth stagnates.”

In healthcare, surmounting unprecedented challenges positioned CIOs to reframe their mission to suit new realities. Their role is revitalized as an agile master of information — a true business hero. CIOs are still tired. They’re still facing enormous cybersecurity threats and shifting paradigms. But they’re also reclaiming information leadership as opposed to mere tactical operations support.